Friday, October 30, 2009

Beauty in Decay

Fall is my favorite season by a long shot. I prefer the cooler temperatures compared to Summer, the relative lack of humidity, and of course the colors of the leaves. In general, Fall makes me happy. When I step outside my house in October and early November, I often find myself smiling without intending to do so. The entire ambiance of the season triggers something inside of me that brings me joy and that's why I always look forward to these months more than any in the year.

When you think about it, though, it's an odd thing. Fall is a time when everything is dying. The flowers are wilting, the trees are losing their leaves, and you can feel the chill of Winter coming. For me, though, what's important is that, unlike Winter, Fall isn't a "dead" season. It may be a "dying" one, but there's still life present and quite often that life is at its most beautiful. I realize not everyone may share my opinion, but then I prefer dusk to dawn in terms of beauty, so my opinion is probably off-center anyway.

What does this have to do with RPGs? Nothing necessarily. However, I've noticed that many, if not most, pulp fantasy worlds have a strongly "autumnal" feeling to them. The best days of the world are over and "Winter" is coming. It's not here yet and there's a chance of a brief "Indian Summer" before the snows fall, but it is coming and there's nothing anyone can do to stop it. Howard's writing definitely has this quality, as does that of Lovecraft and Smith. Moorcock's stories exude this feeling, as do, at the opposite end of the spectrum, Tolkien's. One age is passing away and the new one that is dawning will be a lesser one, a "colder" one.

My Dwimmermount campaign is set in a dying world, where the best -- and worst -- days are in the past. There are no great empires or impressive civic works projects. Instead, civilization clings to the decaying glories of the past, while Chaos lurks amidst the rubble. There's no general expectation of Ragnarok or Armageddon, but instead there's resignation and, in some quarters, ennui, about the inevitable decline to which Man's civilization is succumbing. Perhaps it's just indicative of how bizarrely my mind works, but I find that, against such a background, D&D make a great deal more sense. Most of the game's tropes and conceits work better if the presumed setting is "autumnal." I also find that the actions of the player characters, for good and for ill, take on a more satisfying -- and human -- significance in this context.

I hope this makes some sense to someone other than myself.


  1. I feel very much the same way about autumn. As it relates to D&D, I think the default setting has always been a "dark ages" one -- whether that be after the fall of Rome, the sinking of Atlantis, the decline of Melnibone, the retreat of the Elves, or what-have-you. Just as autumn implies a coming spring, so too do dark ages generally imply a coming Renaissance (though people in the setting may not live to see it.)

    Historically, of course, the notion of "dark ages" is a fiction -- but it's a very powerful fiction, which I expect is why it's such a persistent trope in fantasy and RPGs.

  2. spot on, James, and belated Happy Birthday!

  3. Excellent post James. I do think you hit on the thing that makes games like D&D work so well. The right attitude and "autumnal" time frame really do enhance the feel and small usually unnoticeable aspects of D&D.

    I will say, I do love reading your blog, and I've begun forwarding it to my group, in hopes they will convert to the Old Ways.

  4. I feel the same way about autumn in that it makes me happy, and much of that has to do with the fact that here in Southern California autumn signals a shift from 100+ heat to more temperate weather conditions. But I also suspect it's because for me fall is the beginning of the 'holiday season': my birthday is in mid September, and from there we go into Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christms, etc.

    Oh, and I'm mildly surprised James that you hadn't listed Vance as one of the authors who tap into the autumnal vibe. He's the first that jumped to mind

  5. Autumn - 1983 Castle Amber
    Autumn - 1984 Expedition to the Barrier Peaks
    Autumn - 1985 Village of Hommlet
    Autumn - 1986 DragonLance
    Autumn - 1987 Ravenloft
    Autumn - 1988 A Spectacuarly Doomed Vault of the Drow
    Autumn - 1989 Tomb of Horrors - each of us with four PCs apiece, almost like a game of Paranoia. Still ended up in total defeat.

    I may be mixing some of the chronology, but I have vivid memories of fall weather (and new school years) with those modules.

    An autumnal game for the autumn of our childhood...

  6. Aren't autumnal worlds easier to create than fully functional fantasytopias?

  7. I've gone for the same theme myself in my own fantasy world. where the sun is dying and the great age of heroic adventure is over and long gone. Maybe that's part of being an old Grognardian! ;-)

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  9. I hope this makes some sense to someone other than myself.

    I'll say that this may possibly be the single most brilliant post you've ever made.

    I'm not sure that fall makes me outright "happy", but it is certainly the most poignant and vibrant season, and in all of the details you're definitely spot-on.

    Part of it for me is also engaging the literal harvest season (having grown up on a farm, of which some aspects are very sad indeed), a return to the school year, and likewise having my birthday near the start of Autumn (I'll turn 40 next September). So, best wishes on yours, looks like there's lots of hope for the Indian summer.

  10. Bravo, this is the type of post a 40 year old should be producing. ;-)

    I'm curious what others would say spring, summer and winter campaigns should play like.

  11. I liked autumns in Ontario just fine, it was when I left that I started to hate them again!

    Ice cold and pitch black, that's just painful.

  12. Given that D&D is humanocentric Tolkien is spring not autumn surely, James?

    Neither would I necessarily have connected dreamlands or cosmic horror with autumn - or /any/ season for that matter - but perspective is personal, I guess; even when that's non-Euclidean. ;)

  13. Very interesting post. Why become an adventurer? Why not? It's all going to be over soon anyway right? Go out with some gold and glory! Seize the day! Works for Dying Earth and the Ginger Star among others and seems a pretty standard setting in many of the older Sword and Planet stories.

    Solid post sir!

  14. This is probably one of the reasons I'm an Arnesian rather than a Gygaxian. I prefer the Spring game. Most of my D&D campaigns* have been heavily focused on creating stuff out of the wilderness. Although, thinking on it, a proper Arnesian would by more of a Summer person (after all, that's the time when the peasant levies are available for raiding).

    The stuttered time-frame of the game helped immensely with this, as it allowed players (and even some characters as this method of play encouraged the search for immortality, which was a major theme of the games) to see the changes in the game world, many of which they wrought themselves.

    I even had characters who actually constructed their own traditional D&D dungeons (for various reasons, such as the hiding of a valuable treasure or to make a really strong stronghold or simply because they wanted one) during the game.

    But like the physical year, the gaming seasons are cyclical. Spring growth leads to a Summer renaissance, an Autumnal** decline, and a Winter desolation, to be supplanted by new Spring growth.

    There were remnants of forgotten past civilizations in the wilderness, as well as a history of past civilizations on which the current civilizations were built.
    But the emphasis was on building the future rather than sacking the past.

    [* Both my megadungeons are really self-contained environments for that purpose – any external environment exists purely to support dungeoneering.]

    [** Being in an almost exclusively evergreen environment (or rather one where the trees are most likely to be bare in Summer (particularly after a bushfire)) we tend not to use "Fall" as a season.]

  15. Matthew Johnson - You wrote "Historically, of course, the notion of "dark ages" is a fiction"... I have to call that out for sharp disagreement.

    While for about twenty years there was a surge in revisionist historical work being done in Europe that tried to claim that the "dark ages" were really just "Late Antiquity" and not so bad, there's now accumulating archaeological evidence that, in fact, the Dark Ages of Europe were very dark.

    One could perhaps *argue* about whether or not Dark Ages are historical, but it's definitely not something one should say is "of course" evident.

  16. Personally, I like to think of D&D as being capable of a wide range of expression-- rising civilizations as well as falling ones. The Keep on the Borderlands, for instance doesn't feel autumnal at all. The Keep itself speaks of humanity confident in its power and its morality. The Caves figure less as a threat to civilization than as a place for brave young men to prove themselves.

    All the same, another solid, thought-provoking post.

  17. I too am an autumn lover. Much like the term "twilight", it seems a more magical time, more in tune with nature, a time when one might happen to see faeries in the woods. It is no coincidence that autumn is when we celebrate Halloween - the pagan feat of Samhain (ghosts and faeries are practically the same thing in British folklore).

    One possible reason why I like the autumnal feel is the call to action - we must act now while the going is good, and our efforts will pay off in the coming winter. It's probably some kind of cultural hangover from harvest time.

  18. Me, too. There's a reason I got married on Halloween.

    Sometimes I actually think I have summer seasonal depression. :)

  19. People consider autumn a season of dying because of the dying leaves, but this is in error. Leaves are no more alive than hair, skin or nails on an animal body. More appropriately, autumn is season of renewal for nature, while winter is hybernation, rest and marshalling of energy for the next growth season. Think of winter as getting the new running shoes, establishing training routines and doing initial easy workouts before the real training season begins.

    Human culture associates autumn with dying and winter with death because it is out of synch with environment (has been since the dawn of man, since man had no claws nor fur to survive on isntinct as animals do) and man has been out of synch with his own human nature (thank the centuries of socialization and the urban and industrial culture welive in). Associations of autumn with dying, then is a projection of human emotion on the surrounding world. Just because it is human does not make it any less real though!

    Victor Frankl wrote in his memoir about survival in a concentration camp, Man's Search For Living, about people choosing to die. He puts it down to a conscious choice. People would sit down on their bunk, smoke up all of their remaining tobacco, eat all of their bread ration at once, enjoy life in a decadent pleasure, and be dead in a couple of days. Of course, they did not "choose" to die, nor would many have made that choice if they were told of the consequences. Instead, people automatically were conditioned to accept defeat, with autumnal notions.

    Happy Birthday, James!

  20. That's Victor Frankl, Man's Search For Meaning!

  21. (A)D&D is an odd beast: its focus on the 'ruins of the past' implies an autumnal world, yet its emphasis on the Frontier and driving back Chaos in the Gygaxian works (1e DMG, B2 Keep on the Borderlands) is very strong - the tropes of the classic 'Western' are almost 100% opposed to those of the Dying Earth.

    Put them together, you can get a sense of rebirth, a new age with new heroes to reclaim the past - a Renaissance of sorts. Like 11th century scholars delving into the musty stacks of the University of Bologna to rediscover the literary treasures of the ancient world, PCs delve into musty dungeons to reclaim the lost magics of the former age - and perhaps begin a new age.

    Of course it's possible that Decline & Fall is more attractive to our current generation than that which grew up in the relatively optimstic '50s-'60s. It may be we share rather a lot with the pulp writers of the '30s who had seen the suicide-slaughter of the Great War and could sense new disaster on the horizon. After the triumphalism of the '90s, Western power appears past its apogee, there is plenty to indicate we are in an era of Decline, even if Fall may remain a fair ways off.

  22. Matthew Johnson:
    "Historically, of course, the notion of "dark ages" is a fiction..."

    This trope of revisionist historians has never made any sense to me. Lots of cultures have gone through Dark Ages, and Western Europe certainly did. It seems to me to take wilful blindness not to see that. One thing that struck me most forcefully was visiting the British Museum and looking at the artifacts of different epochs; the change from Roman civilisation to the barbarian epoch following is really striking when you compare what they left behind.

  23. Spot on post and obviously a lot of us share the same sentiment. I enjoy the night and autumn brings darkness and that tingling chill in the air, giving us the first hint of winter.

  24. Apparently, the "Dark Ages" were so named because we lacked any real knowledge of what happened during them, a result of a relative lack of evidence. As I understand it, the information turning up as a result of modern archaeological investigation is what has caused the trend away from the term, rather than an idea of awfulness or whatever.

  25. Churchill was an historian, and he talked about a Nazi-dominated Earth as a potential "New Dark Age" - clearly referring to awfulness rather than lack of knowledge! Obviously the two often go together, though.

  26. Well, amongst their other frightful characteristics, the Nazis were avid historical revisionists and book burners. ;)

    What Churchill had in mind I could not guess without seeing the passage in question, but "Dark Age", much like "Crusade" (as famously made use of by Eisenhower), is a very evocative sort of term.

    Technically, though, the term refers to the difficulty of "seeing" what happened during that period, or so I understand. it has been a while since I read the articles in question.

  27. Despite the arguing of historians over whether the term Dark Age is appropriate, there's no doubt that writers at the time thought they were living in the autumn of the world. Gregory the Great, for example, writing in the aftermath of the Gothic Wars, wrote that civilization was in decline and that the end of the world must be soon. The people living in Western Europe in the early Middle Ages were very much aware of the ruins of the ancient world all around them, even if they projected their own ideas on the relics of the Roman past.